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How His Small Factory Got Drafted Into Crafting A Key Component For Ventilators

One Friday in March, Todd Olson was suddenly pulled into a life-or-death project.

General Motors Co. asked Olson, CEO of Twin City Die Castings in Minneapolis: Could he help make tiny pistons? The giant carmaker was committed to helping the country by producing ventilators, which were suddenly in short supply as the coronavirus spread like wildfire. And GM needed lots of pistons for the kind of ventilator it would produce. Most importantly, the pistons had to come together fast.

And that's how this small company in Minneapolis got drafted into a manufacturing effort unlike any since World War II.

Olson was already bracing for a huge chunk of his regular business drying up because two of his largest customers, Ford Motor Co. and GM, announced they were stopping car production altogether.

So this request was fortuitous, even if it required the kind of planning his company had never done before.

"Normally this would take about 12 weeks for us to get into production," he said.

Olson's company is in the business of die casting, essentially pouring molten aluminum into custom molds to make larger car parts. So to make the kind of small pistons that GM needed would require different kinds of molds — smaller ones. So he called a different company that makes custom molds — Die-Tech & Engineering in the Grand Rapids, Mich., area

The two manufacturers pulled in all of their engineers and ran their shops around the clock all weekend long. Some engineers designed the mold. Others ran computer simulations to find the optimal speed for pouring the molten aluminum. Months' worth of man-hours were condensed into a few days.

Soon the mold was in a van from Michigan to Minneapolis.

Early Thursday morning, Olson went into his factory. A group of men stood around in hard hats and safety glasses, drinking coffee, as a machine operator hit a button. There was a loud sizzle, then a clank. And that was how the first piston parts were made for the ventilator project over one long weekend.

"We've been in business a hundred years," Olson said. "And this might well be our biggest moment."

Read more stories in Faces Of The Coronavirus Recession.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Kenny Malone is a correspondent for NPR's Planet Money podcast. Before that, he was a reporter for WNYC's Only Human podcast. Before that, he was a reporter for Miami's WLRN. And before that, he was a reporter for his friend T.C.'s homemade newspaper, Neighborhood News.